to "The Nudist on The Late
WHEN YOU MEET
billionaire for the first time, you really want him to do something
have no idea what being a billionaire might be like, but you cant help but be
curious. What is it like? The billionaire is a little bit of a zoo animal for the public
in this way. Particularly the instant billionaire. Because thats the public fantasy.
Nobodys really all that fascinated anymore with fifty-five-year-old stone-hearted
moguls who made their billions crushing little people for twenty-five years. Its so
much more appealing to imagine being a billionaire when youre young enough to really
enjoy it and you havent had to be cruel to people to earn it. The Sub-35 Billionaire
is really a new life-form, an economic mutation that emerged from this little pond of
vigorous capitalist Darwinism. Its as if dinosaurs suddenly hatched again in the
Alviso mudflats of San Jose. The Sub-35 Billionaire, this new species, captures the
imagination not just like any zoo animal---hes a brontosaurus.
So when you meet your first Sub-35 Billionaire, you want to do it in
his natural habitat, because that way youre much more likely to catch him doing
something billionairish. Youre not picky. Youll take just about any eccentric
behavior as evidence of what Sub-35 Billionaires are like. Just as long as theres a
sparkle in the moment, the light through the diamond, verifying that its real.
It is in this manner, and with this purpose, that people who come to
Yahoo!s offices in Santa Clara for one reason or another take a little detour and
navigate the maze of second-floor cubicles to pop in on or observe the Sub-35 Billionaire
David Filo, one of the companys cofounders. When I stopped by recently to have lunch
with a friend whos worked there since June 1996 (a month after Yahoo! went public),
I thought Id better go ask David Filo if he still slept under his desk. My friend
has escorted numerous visitors who wanted to make this little detour. He says that most
people walk away saying, "I didnt really get any impression. I was so
distracted. I just kept seeing a billion-dollar bill hovering in the air above him."
Most people who look at David Filo---and most people who live at Silicon
Valley---cant see past the dollar signs. Its the same as how some people have
a hypersensitivity to cilantro---put a little twig of cilantro in a salad and cant
taste anything but the explosion of cilantro. Except that having a hypersensitivity to a
billion dollars is the norm, which is to say that the few people who can see beyond the
flashing-neon dollar signs are the odd ones. It is normal to go weird around money, to be
made uncomfortable by it, to get supremely excited by it. Money is exceptionally
I am one of the odd ones. I have an accountants clinical calm
around figures big and small; I dont go weird around money, and people get less
weird around money when Im there. Its like night vision, but rather than
seeing in the dark I can see past the nine zeroes. Its made it easier for me to
avoid snap judgments about what Ive seen in Silicon Valley. Im inexperienced
as a journalist and Im no good at asking tough questions, but I have green vision.
So I didnt want to ask David Filo what its like to have
a billion dollars. I just wanted to ask him if he still slept under his desk. For some
time, I looked for an icon of Silicon Valley---an image, thing, or place where one could
go take it all in. And in the course of my search, the photo editor for the San Jose
Mercury News pointed me to a photograph taken by Meri Simon, titled "Sleepless in
Silicon Valley." The photograph is of a programmer sleeping on the carpet in his
cramped, cluttered office, head jammed under his desk, gray blanket draped of his fragile
torso. The photograph became more meaningful when I learned that the programmer was none
other than David Filo. However, the photo was shot when David was worth a mere $500
million, and I guess I had to find out for myself if lie as a Sub-35 Billionaire was any
different from being a Sub-30 Cinquentimillionaire.
David Filo doesnt even have an office. He shares a double-wide
cubicle with another guy. Its a window cubicle, but located right on the thick
support pillar, so there are only a couple feet of tinted window on either side. David was
standing up, and he was awash in a trash heap of paper. I dont mean a metaphorical
trash heap, I mean an actual one, forty inches deep of unread memos, promotional
literature, office chatter. Enough paper to fill several refrigerators. An inopportune
bump could trigger a landslide. This trash heap was not a political statement about
tree-product waste. This trash heap was not David Filos de facto overflowing garbage
can (it contained no Diet Coke cans or Dominos boxes). It was his in box and filing
system. How ironic that the guy who has engineered the most popular directory for
organizing the morass of the World Wide Web is utterly unable to engineer an organization
system for his own paper flow. This trash heap was not to be thrown away. It was a plain
old mess, the kind your mom hollers at you to clean up.
Another irony: David Filo, cofounder of Yahoo!, was wearing a fairly
well-worn white company T-shirt from Excite, Yahoo!s fierce competitor. Was this
sarcasm? Was this humor" I have no idea. When his choice of T-shirt was pointed out
to him, he glanced down at it and gave out a demure little acknowledgment but didnt
really seem to register it at all. He had other things on his mind. If it had
clearly been either sarcastic humor or a complete accident that he was wearing a T-shirt
advertising his competitor, the moment would have sparkled. Instead it was a letdown. So
was our exchange of words, the entire transcript of which follows:
[Our friend casually introduces me.]
Filo: [mumble] [blank stare as if I am a television tuned to Home
[Our friend mentions my novels.]
Filo: [mumble] Oh, uh-huh. [faint sign of recognition]
Me: [at loss for words, trying to be friendly] You still sleep under
Filo: [Looks down; under his desk is trash head.] Not much anymore.
Okay, that wasnt the entire transcript, but things
didnt really pick up from there. I did find it quite amusing that he no longer slept
under his desk, not because he had doubled his money since then but because his trash heap
doubled in size and squeezed him out. He did go on to say that he was moving to a new
cubicle soon. He is not aloof, not somber, not antisocial, not particularly evasive. But
hes something like all those things combined. Hes blurry. Im
hard-pressed to put down a physical description, other than to say "medium."
Medium in all respects. How unbillionairish of him! He defies being anything other
than a fiercely hardworking engineer. Hes certainly no icon. He emits none of the
flash/dazzle/wiz-bang future-is-now excitement that we popularly associate with this
burgeoning industry. And I cant say much more about him other that I think that,
regarding his billion dollars, he too is one of the odd ones. It hasnt made him go
However weird he may be, he already was.
I BEGAN MY
search for an icon when a producer for the ABC television show Nightline
called me up one day and asked for some help. They wanted to do a minidocumentary about
Silicon Valley. Their objective was vague but open-minded: "We want to capture
whats going on out there," said Lisa Koenig, the segment's producer. I like
their attitude. Something was going on out here, and I was heartened to hear they
didnt pretend to already know what it was. Before getting on the plane west, they
preinterviewed all of the subjects by telephone, and the correspondent, Robert
decided to use the cable Internet company @Home as the documentarys protagonist.
Being with a nation television show, they didnt have trouble getting otherwise over
committed CEOS to clear their schedules for two hours with Krulwich and his camera team.
At the end of the first day I asked Koenig how it was going. She
said that the interviews were fine but there was a problem: neither she nor Krulwich nor
anyone from the camera crew had been here before. Until they stepped off the plane that
morning theyd never seen "Silicon Valley, The Place." They had been hoping
for an establishing shot that said "Youre here!," the equivalent of New
York Citys skyline or the Hollywood lettering in the hills. They wanted visual
anecdotes that captured the essence of life in the Valley: the high stakes risk taking,
the long working hours, the areas congestion from rapid growth, the sudden wealth.
More than anything, they need to point the camera at something that captured the
So far all they found was an endless suburb, hush and nonchalant, in
terrain too flat to deserve the term "valley." Along the peninsula the setting
seemed to repeat itself, a cartoon backdrop---every few miles another Blockbuster Video,
another Chevys, another Toyota lot. In between were office parks, quiet in the hot
sun. The answer to "What is there, there?" was a cruel letdown.
Because Ive been around the Valley since coming to college in
1982, I was so accustomed to the locale that I never noticed this obvious point. As I
looked at it through this camera crews eyes, though, the irony was acute: the
industry that gave us the Macintosh smiley face and a screenful of icons that make
computers touch-feely familiar never coughed up an icon for the whole shebang. It lacks a
place you can go take it all in, to "get it."
When I worked at the investment banking firm First Boston in the
mid-1980s, I would get requests from friends to tour our office "to see what
its all about." I would usher them out onto the sales and trading floor and the
iconicness of the place never failed to live up to expectations. Liquid crystal stock
tickers rushed quotes along the walls. Suit jackets that cost thousands of dollars would
be thrown over the backs of chairs like T-shirts. Men and women with prestigious pedigrees
would be screaming into their telephones, standing up amid war-room-like computer
monitors, their faces sweaty and their eyes jerky with the knowledge of having millions of
dollars exposed in a moving market. It was an image with a sound track: trading activity
in offices around the country was announced over a PA system, echoing in from an aural
cyberspace. Fifty phones were ringing at the same time.
Silicon Valley has its places, and though these places whisper their
own mantra, they never shout it. Youve heard that Silicon Valley is glamorous and
that its a very exciting time to be here, but the glamour and excitement are rarely
manifested in the moment. You can stand in the aisles at Frys Electronics on a
Friday night and see peoples endless fascination with joysticks and Dilbert books.
You can have breakfast at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto and know that probably half the people
there are in the business, though theres no way to tell which half. You can attend
speeches delivered by the industrys titans to faithful conventioneers at the Moscone
Center, but the same scene in the same location is played out every week by every other
convention that comes to town.
Ive never found one place that said it all. Ones
understanding of Silicon Valley is built up over time, in many thin layers, by many small
hints. Visually, what can be used as a montage, and thats what Nightline
resorted to. I had pointed them to forty-foot-wide billboards beside Highway 101 that
advertise job openings at Valley companies and to the campus of Silicon Graphics, which
seemed, in its architecture, to embody the managerial principle of chaotic conflict: the
raw materials of brick glass, and unfinished steel butting up against one another in
hectic polygons, interrupted by vibrant yellow and bold purple decahedrons. The camera
crew also found the trailer home dentist who drives up to Netscape several days a week so
employees dont have to leave work to their teeth fixed and the washer-and-dryer
facility at Excite where workers too busy to do laundry at home can do it at work.
I like these visual anecdotes because they looked past the dollar
signs to convey how the Silicon Valley lifestyle blurs the line between work and non-work.
This trend is going on all over the country and has been for two decades, but nowhere has
it gone to the extremes it has in the Valley. What is an "office park" but an
oxymoronic euphemism that blurs the distinction between indoors and outdoors, between
building and forest, between work and rest---but always seems to result in more work and
less rest? Silicon Valley is this concept taken to the level of a whole region: its
one big office park. In its uninspiring placidity, the Valley offers its workers a
sustained level of non-distraction, ensuring that work remains the most interesting and
compelling activity in ones view from of enticement.
But neither washing machine nor a trailer home nor an office park
emits any buzz.
was getting some buzz for a while was called Mae West. In 1995 and 1996, as the Internet
was being developed and people were openly wondering whether the system was stable, it was
fashionable to sound informed at cocktail parties by blurting, "I hear Mae West was
down today." Though the Internet was supposed to be a big spider web spanning the
nation, it was really more like one big spider web on the East Coast and another on the
West, connected by a fat hose of fiber-optic lines. The central hub in the east was Mae
East and, out here, Mae West. People chatted a lot about Mae West without knowing that
"Mae" stood for Metro Area Exchange and without knowing where Mae West was
located, which was in San Jose. But it conjured something in our imaginations: half of the
entire Internet, running through one room! The amount of equipment that must be there, the
clicking and clacking and switching and routing, the loud roar of the Internet would put
any Orwell/Kubrick vision of computer power to shame!
A few people were let inside, and in late 1997 it was a very cool
thing to do if you were hosting a party anywhere near downtown San Jose: hop on a shuttle
bus with your guests and take them over to walk through the Mae. Put that on your
invitation, and the RSVP rate doubled. But nobody I knew who went to one of these parties
seemed to talk about it afterward. It was as if they were sworn to secrecy.
In a way, they were. The Mae was a telecommunications co-op, managed
by WorldCom but owned jointly by most of the big phone companies and Internet service
providers. When I called WorldCom to ask to see it with my own eyes, I had to sign a
nondisclosure agreement that they faxed to me. This NDA required me to agree not to write
about those things anyone who belonged to this wire commune would consider trade secrets.
I could, however, describe it in general. No photographs would be allowed.
Three gigabits of data flowed through the Mae every second. Surely
here, in the secret center of the Internet, I would find the thrum and buzz of the
industry. Its located in a fiery gold building in downtown San Jose that has so many
internal backup systems that the engineer who escorted me upstairs liked to joke, "If
the building had wheels, we could drive it to Arizona." I signed a couple more
documents to satisfy the security guards in the lobby and took an elevator to the eleventh
Outside the door the sound hit me first---a treble hum of fans and a
bass thrum of thundering air conditioners that I could feel in my feet through the
linoleum-covered floor. We entered into a vast labyrinth of gunmetal gray chain-link
cages, their doors secured by Kryptonite horseshoe bicycle locks. Bolted to the floor
inside the cages were ceiling-high racks of Cisco 7500 routers and FDDI concentrators and
shelves of modems lined up like books in cases. The wiring of all this equipment twisted
into vines and crept up to overhead trellises, then made its way along the ceiling and
passed through a hole in the far wall, leading the way to Mae.
Exiting the maze, we circled the battery supply room. Each of these
twenty or so batteries was the size of a refrigerator. They are so heavy that to prevent
their crashing through the floor, the batteries sit on two reinforced steel I beams. I
walked trepidly, close to the tinted windows. For whatever reason, this backup power
system was given a corner office, with a view north up Silicon Valley that rivals
anybodys, though, as Ive said, thats not saying much. On this hot day,
brown smog sat over the lowlands of the peninsula, and the only objects identifiable
through the smog were the northern-running freeways. It reminded me again why I was here,
and I turned around to finally enter Mae itself.
At last, the inner sanctum.
Two keys inserted into the door and a combination in the cyberlock
get us in ...well, its sort of like when Dorothy meets the Wizard of Oz. The same
cruel letdown again. Mae West turned out to be three gigabit switches, each about the size
of a minimicrowave. Each had fiber-optic lines jacked into its face, but---another
letdown---fiber-optic cable looks exactly like ordinary phone cord, only its colored
bright orange so you can tell the difference. The room was perfectly quiet. Mae West, the
great Internet hub of hubs in the heart of Silicon Valley, is composed of less high-tech
equipment than most people have in their living rooms.
Now I understand why nobody who had been there had had much to talk
two problems of portraying Silicon Valley:
1. There is very little there, there.
2. What is is shrouded in secrecy.
If you didnt know better, you might take a look at the
tremendous amount of media coverage given to high technology and assume that this place
runs like an open book, perfectly willing to be a media darling. It seems like a loose,
freewheeling world. In fact, journalists are asked to sign an NDA at every workplace they
enter: Its okay to write about this little gizmo we having coming out next week, but
if you happen to overhear anything about this big gizmo we have coming out next year,
well take action against you if it appears in print. You will have a PR
representative with you at all times. You may not mention the names of our customers or
clients without written permission. You may not interview employees unless we authorized
them to speak with you. In other words, "Keep your hands inside the car at all
For example, I had a couple of acquaintances who sold their company
to Microsoft and moved to Redmond; they invited me to fly up and go water-skiing on Lake
Washington after work. Then they had to call back and cancel. They were quite embarrassed:
Microsoft was insisting on putting a PR representative in the boat with us!
The machinery of work is as tightly kept a secret as our society has
anymore. Its guarded by a legal firewall. Theres just too much money at stake.
And in the world of business, nowhere is there more money at stake than here. Everyone's
lips are sewn up by severance contracts, nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts,
term sheets, shareholder lawsuits in process, settlement papers, "hold harmless
agreements, formal complaints, ad infinitum. The recent past cant be talked about
because of potential libel or violation of an NDA. The near future certainly cant be
discussed because of the strict Securities and Exchange Commission laws forbidding
forward-looking statements. When one company buys another, both parties are strictly
forbidden to discuss the negotiations. Intellectual property and trade secrets are
carefully guarded. Employees are briefed and debriefed.
That said, there really is a din of news coverage coming out of the
Valley, and firms here are desperate to "rise above the noise." This created a
perverted dilemma in which companies were desperate to talk to me but the things that
Id like to hear are exactly the things theyre forbidden to discuss. They
dont like it anymore than I do; they are indeed, by nature, frolicsome, freewheeling
folks who find the nuances of what they do curiously compelling. They enjoy spilling the
beans. They like to know that they have story-worth lives, that their work really is as
dramatic as they feel it is. They work away in relative isolation for months, and
theres nothing more gratifying than a journalist showing up and saying,
"Youre important." Actually, there is something more gratifying than that.
Its when a journalist shows up and says, "Your life would make a great
But sometimes even that doesnt get the good stuff out of them.
Its funny what rituals some sources want to go through before theyre
comfortable telling their story. Gina comes to mind. Gina recently resigned from working
for Pixar after it had gone public, and she was now chilling out, decompressing,
reevaluating her life. She was in that stage where the narrative of her life had broken
down. Her head was full of so many stories that it was impossible to get them out one at a
time. Getting a full story out of her was like catching a fish with your hands: Id
get really close, and then shed sense my fascination and dart on to another topic. I
had to spend long hours with her, and occasionally good stories would peep out.
A trust needed to develop between us. One day we walked the
meditation labyrinth inside Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. By demonstrating the necessary
solemnity, I graduated to what I perceived to be the next test: stomach massage. We
crossed the street to a busy park, where I stretched out in the sun on a warm concrete
bench. The stomach muscles, according to my would-be masseuse, are the hardest ones to
relax because they protect the organs. To let someone manhandle your liver is the ultimate
test of trust. She would use my abdominal rectus as a lie detector test.
She began to poke at my thorax, and in the course of conversation,
she started talking about the programmer nudist who worked the late shift at one of the
animation companies that dealt with Pixar. Peep! My interest was piqued, my abdominal wall
sprang tight, she sensed my fervor, and she was on to another topic. When I urged her to
tell me more about the nudist, she dismissively remarked that everybody knew about the
nudist, he was an urban legend. When I begged, she said that yes, she would tell me about
him some time.
For the next year, I often wondered about the nudist. I didnt
know if it was true, but it was sensational, buzz-worthy. Nobody can look at a nudist
sitting there in his cubicle and see just dollar signs. Being a nudist on the late shift
seemed to me to be the ultimate symbol of how people here want to assert their personal
values on the job---a symbol of how tightly woven together work and play have become (a
heck of a lot better symbol than a dentist trailer or an on-site washing machine). What
some people see as a cold techno-Valley of ruthless corporate greed was nevertheless, to
him, his Garden of Eden. And there was something innocent about nakedness, exposed and
vulnerable. No money in the picture, no Ferraris, no lava lamps, no pocket protectors, no
T-shirts---no distraction. Just a man, a computer, and a job.
I sent feelers out, asking friends who worked in animation and
graphics. Occasionally I would get back "Oh, Ive heard stories about that
guy." But nobody I talked to had seen him or met him or could confirm that he
wasnt just urban legend.
LATELY, I KEEP
getting asked the same question: "Dont you want to join one of
these start-ups you write about and make your bundle?" Its such an obvious
question, but thats the downside of my green-vision oddness: Im not very
tempted by money. What I do see, when I consider the question, is access. I see a way to
get beyond the legal firewall once and for all. I have done my share (but no more than my
share) of mischievous trickery: posing as a sales assistant, sneaking into buildings,
faking a resume, getting into long conversations without identifying myself as a
journalist, et cetera. I have a lot of fun chasing these stories around. Wouldnt
taking a job give me the real inside story?
I didnt think so. Silicon Valley is a diverse free-for-all of
experiences. The experience of being a freelance Java programmer is nothing like the
experience of being a business development director of an Internet search engine. Java
programmers practically dont even speak the same language as the
business-dealmakers---both have their own slang vocabulary. The experience of working in,
say, the New Age human potential culture at Apple is vastly different from working for
Intel, where employees go through what is called "confrontation training," in
which they learn to call one another names and brutally speak their minds, believing that
only through conflict will good ideas emerge. The experience of being a bootstrap start-up
entrepreneur financed by serial credit cards is very different from being a fast-track
start-up funded by Kleiner Perkins venture capital. The experience of going through an
initial public offering is actually quite rare, and even those who have jobs at a company
that does go public are excluded from seeing the nitty-gritty process, which is left to
the three or four top people at the company who make up the IPO team. And none of the
people just mentioned has the faintest clue to what goes on in the sales side of the
If the odds of making a million-plus dollars here in less than three
years are one in seven, the odds of my getting a good story by taking a job are probably
no better. In order to portray the broad panorama of Valley experience, I feel that my
vantage point as a rogue journalist is better than having a job and probably second best
only to being a venture capitalist.
So in the end, to capture this region, I fell upon the same device
as the Nightline crew: a montage of the core experiences that define the work/life
adventure. Because of the legal firewall, in a few places I have disguised sources, and
these are noted in the text.
Whats not in this book is a roundup of the Valleys Most
Important People, its movers and shakers, its A-list. Im just not drawn to
those kinds of people, and that formula strikes me as a very East Coast paradigm being
forced onto a West Coast phenomenon. The Valley is about the opportunity to become
a mover or a shaker, not about being one. That opportunity is what gets young
people to move here every day from Illinois and India and Canada.
Or, to restate, "movers and shakers" conveys the
centralization of power, whereas the Valleys intrinsic paradigm is the
decentralization of power. To create a "mover-and-shaker class" or an
"A-list" would be to impose gods, to impose preordainedness, and to worship
In this day and age, some of us are lucky enough to be free to make
what we can of the world. We have independent will at our disposal, and we have the urgent
moral responsibility to exercise that will, not follow in the steps of those help up as
gods. There are no higher stakes in life, no higher ambition. That is the true spirit of
In Silicon Valley, a million-plus young people are lucky enough to
wake up every morning to this opportunity. It is perversely amusing to watch us, a
generation so afflicted with cynicism and irony, melt ever so slowly in the face of
high-paying jobs. Usually it works the other way: the longer youve been around, the
more hardened you get. But after having poked my nose into so many peoples business,
having watched horror stories unfold and successes play out, Im less jaded now that
the day I began.
THAT WAS ABOUT
four years ago.
Long ago we used to have a writers group. Four guys. Wed
meet one night a week at one or another of our low-rent apartments. We drank a lot of red
table wine and discussed our stories with stubborn tenacity. The social component was
high, we were bound together by a common interest, and it was impossible not to
romanticize what we were doing. This definitely seemed to be the thing young men of
Dionysian temperament should be doing in their early twenties, living in the bohemian
city: stay up too late, rap, chant, smoke, drink, create.
Our writing got us into graduate programs, and one of us started to
win awards, first locally, then nationally. Im not really sure how to characterize
what happened next, but I guess we got swept up in the fervor of the times. Or sucked in.
One of us started writing newsletters for tech firms, then wrote a few nifty computer
books, then became a columnist for a Ziff-Davis report, and soon was a full-fledged
high-tech guru, the kind of guy who walks around tech conferences with a small entourage
of devotees and PR flacks pitching him the latest buzzword.
Another of us switched his major to computer science and became a
graphical user interface programmer, now in high demand. He rants on the theories of
computer usability with the same headstrong passion he once devoted to Saul Bellow.
The third---the award winner---started working in the Valley, hoping
to save enough money or score with options to take a year off and give his fiction another
concerted push. Now he ghostwrites best-selling Web developer books.
I started to record the stories I was hearing from Silicon Valley.
Our generation was taking on the label of having been born cynical/passive, and the Valley
seemed to me to be the place where that was least true. It offered a chance to leave a
mark on a world that already seemed terribly marked up. I started to visit workplaces, go
see friends of friends, simply soak up the milieu. The domain of working life,
particularly in corporate America, has the stereotype of being inhabited by working
stiffs. But I kept meeting young people at the proving point of their lives who risked it
all and would either succeed wildly or go down tragically. I wasn't as interested in their
success as I was in this way of life: taking risks, forging the future, everything a
maybe. For young people, it is very important not to be able to see ones fate, very
important to have the sense that ones life is not preordained.
I know why these stories interested me. I know what nerves in
me go "Quaannngg!" Some journalists have what they call a "bullshit
detector." I have what I call a "Goose Bump Meter." If I dont get
goose bumps hearing someones story or experiencing it with him, I throw my notes in
the trash. I was interested in one thing: people in pursuit of unusual lives.
A writers job, in the romantic notion, is to document chaos
and to remind us that the chaos exists---that the pretense of forward progress is a lie.
That life is crazy and a struggle and haunted. A writer's job, in the romantic sense, is
to indulge ones Dionysian energy, to let it dominate our Apollonian energy, and to
have a keen nose for adventure. (Dionysus was the God of wine and revelry; Apollo drove
the chariot that carried the sun across the sky with such regularity, such order.) But
its also just so obvious that the phenomenon of Business has taken over the world,
imposing its own form or order. Apollos resurrected, and hes wearing a suit
and has his money in index funds and is incredibly popular. As a writer, to ignore the
sweeping transformation of what was culture into "the entertainment business,"
to ignore the obvious ways business elected itself the new culture, would be to turn a
blind eye at what most needs to be seen clearly.
In Silicon Valley I found, for a few years, the vociferous
expression of both those impulses. It is wildly chaotic. It tears itself down
continuously. It teeters on the brink of self-destruction. But it is a chaos unlike any
other chaos. It is a smoothly working chaos. It is a chaos that generates endless growth.
It is the chaos of hard effort, rather than the chaos of need gratification.
And I would argue that this tapping of both impulses is exactly its
appeal to our generation.
If I could say just one thing about Silicon Valley, this is it:
every generation that came before us had to make a choice in life between pursuing a
steady career and pursuing wild adventures.
In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been
By injecting mind-boggling amounts of risk into the once stodgy
domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose. Its a
two-for-one deal: the career path has become an adventure into the unknown. More happens
here and so quickly, satisfying anybodys craving for newness. In six months you
might get a job, be laid off, start a company, sell it, become a consultant, and then, who
I JUST NEVER
know when and where Silicon Valleys bizarre way of life is going to suddenly reveal
On a wet Sunday morning in late March, I was at the West Sunset
soccer fields in San Francisco, playing in a regular pickup game that has passed down to
new generations for more than twenty years: same time every week, ever since the 1970s.
Almost all the players are immigrants, and the game is theoretically open to all comers,
but the players are verbally abusive to anyone who doesnt have the knack. On this
Sunday, we were kicked off our regular field by someone who held a city permit and waved
it in our faces. We resumed our game on the open grass beside the field. Men in Smith
& Hawken rubber raincoats came out to rechalk the filed lines and hang brand-new nets.
Bright orange corner flags were planted, and then the referee showed up with two
linesmen---the latter a real luxury. I knew the ref from over the years.
"Hey, Hal, whos playing?"
Hal didnt know, but he said whoever it was was paying him big
Then the teams showed up. It was a coed game, and all the players
were adults. Their game began, and when I bothered to look over I could see they were
klutzes. I suspected, at that point, that it was some sort of gung ho corporate picnic,
determined not to be defeated by the drizzle.
When our game ended, I walked over. I could see then that the
uniforms of the team in blue said "Scopus" across the chest, and those of the
team in white "Siebel." I knew from the business pages that these were two
software companies and that Siebel recently bought Scopus.
I struck up a conversation with one of the players kneeling on the
sideline. I asked if this was the way two firms were getting to know each other. He said
it was; then he took a good look at me for the first time---my question had implied that I
might know a little about the software business---and asked, "Hey, what do you
do?" Before I could even answer, he got to his point. He asked, "Do you want a
I couldnt believe it. But it indeed happened. Do you want a
job? His words rang in my ears. There I was, a complete stranger standing in a soaking
wet T-shirt with mud splattered on my knees, and I was encouraged to apply for a job
merely because I had recognized the name of his firm. How could this be? It wasnt
enough to buy an entire company of people, the fire needed to be fed. More people! The
oddity didnt seem to register on him. Maybe he did this all the time, asking people
wherever he went: "Do you want a job?"
I said I was a writer. This disappointed him, but only slightly. He
said, "We really need programmers. But we need technical writers too. Do you ever
writer about technology?"
I said that I did write a little about that, occasionally.
He pointed a blond woman out who he said worked in Human Resources
and urged me to talk with her. Then he brought up the subject of programmers again. Did I
Feeling a little mischievous, I pointed out a pack of my friends who
were taking off their cleats and packing their bags seventy yards away: "See those
guys? Most of them are programmers." This wasnt at all true, but the guys
eyes got big and he dispatched the blond lady to go talk to the group.
This was just the sort of occurrence that to most hair-trigger
cultural forecasters indicates what is called a "market top"---the equivalent of
when grandmothers take their savings out of the mattress to buy mutual funds. When jobs
are being offered to soaking wet strangers, perhaps this is a sign that Silicon Valley has
hit its market top.
But later, I was researching software salespeople, and I spent some
time with a competitor of Siebel. I learned that Siebel Systems is one of the
hardest-driving, most aggressive sales outfits in the industry. Around that time, I
received e-mail from a man who identified himself as a Siebel salesperson. Hed read
my books, and he was wondering what to do with his life because he could no longer take
the relentless pressure of meeting the staggering quotas. It was ruining his life and his
personality. Siebel wasn't a company that had a reputation for being fat or lazy, and its
revenue results for that quarter far exceeded the financial analysts predictions.
What kind of life is this, working for a company that will smile and
shake your hand and offer you a job but if you take that job might cruelly drive you to
exhaustion? Sure, join the game, come on in! Doesnt matter if you speak the
language. Everybodys welcome. But dammit, asshole, quicker! Pass me the goddamned
CAN THE VALLEYS high-tech pickup game keep growing forever? Isnt there some natural
limit where the degree of chaos caused by the churning of start-ups and failures exceeds
the degree of order established by standardized protocols and it starts to tear itself
down faster than it builds up? Doesnt the fact that the business is running on
vapor---without revenues, without offices, without physical products---mean that at a
certain point will lose its ability to float? Do the principles of economics work in
space, beyond the reach of gravity? Is there any oxygen up there? One fad after another
have been proven to be no more than that, but amazingly, everyone still has a job,
plugging sixty-hour weeks into the next fad. Surely, surely, a crash is due. Not just a
brisk correction that can be patched by repricing options, but a real crash.
Where are the fundamentals? Its a business based on nothing
more than ideas and thus cant be stable. And arent all the good ideas taken
Outside, thats what everyone is thinking. From a distance, the
business seems unsustainable.
But heres what you see from the inside.
I was researching the process of what its like to go public,
and a firm invited me down to its office to meet its investment banks, who would have to
approve of letting me into their show. I arrived at the building, entered the lobby, and
got into the elevator for the ride to the third floor. Stepping in behind me were two guys
just a little younger than me, wearing blue jeans and striped polo shirts. They were also
headed to the third floor and they were in the midst of a conversation about the pros and
cons of developing software on the Sun Microsystems Solaris 2.4 operating system versus
Microsofts Windows NT 3.51 system. I had my little reporters notebook with me
because Im always looking for telling anecdotes, and I figured, this is good, these
are the engineers, and later Ill meet the bankers.
On the third floor, these guys popped into the bathroom, and I went
in to meet with the company. I met the CEO, the corporate counsel, and the venture
capitalist, and we sat down in a conference room.
"Those bankers should be here by now," said the CEO. I was
And then in walked the bankers---the two guys in the blue jeans and
The Valley has changed dramatically. I used to be an investment
banker, and we used to do deals for Hewlett-Packard and Genentech. On a good day, in front
of a customer, we might have pretended and faked a little knowledge about the technical
stuff. On a good day, we might have been able to sketch a diagram on a napkin. But we
hadnt really known anything. Wed been good at changing the subject. When
wed been on our own---in elevators, say---wed talked about sports. If
wed ever been seen out of our suits, we wouldnt be recognizable.
Its extraordinary how savvy everyone is about everyone
elses turf. Even the generalists have a high degree of specialty knowledge. Just a
few years ago---around the time I was researching the Valley for my novel The First $20
Million is Always the Hardest---there existed a tectonic divide between the bankers,
the engineers, and the marketing whizzes. Engineers, in particular, held a deep scorn for
the moneymen. Knowledge was strictly on a need-to-know basis. But under competitive
pressure, you need to know everything.
After the meeting with those investment bankers in blue jeans (in
which I was dinged, forbidden to observe the process further), I strolled through the
engineering/programming cubicles with the public relations liaison. Several of the
programmers were working with split monitor screens. On one screen they were programming;
on the other, they were trading their own personal portfolios on E-Trade or some such
on-line brokerage. They were trading put and call options to give their trades further
leverage, and they didnt think anything of this. It wasnt unusual, they
assured me. Even the public relations liaison held puts and calls on tech stocks.
"Dont you?" she asked.
So heres what I think. I think if we have grown to this level
despite the tectonic divide and scorn between the specialties---with so much lost in the
translation every time and so much bumbling ineptitude as the result---now that the divide
is gone, now that bankers can chat about workstation operating systems and programmers
trade puts and calls and over dinner people debate stupid business ideas, we may be on the
verge of the biggest growth explosion yet. Weve survived the steep learning curve
and the embarrassments of goofball concepts and Ponzi scheme financing. We know better. If
this industry is driven by ideas, the fundamentals have never been better. The next five
years will be the Valleys greatest boom of innovation to date.
Im perfectly aware that such a statement will be
misinterpreted as being a prediction for Internet stocks, which are circus unto
themselves. Though people are willing to make bets, nobody pretends that stock prices are
rational. By now its perfectly clear that the national fascination is riveted on
people who are getting rich quickly and easily---and that its hard for the country
to see beyond the dollar signs. The Internet is the plot device for the 90s;
its the thing people are using to get rich, like oil and real estate in the
70s, or stocks and bonds in the 80s. Average people no more understand the
importance of Java purification than they did prepayment rates on high-coupon Ginnie Mae
mortgage bonds or tax rebates on drilling costs. People on a bus can tell you that
TheGlobe.com was initially priced at $9 per share and finished its first day of trading at
$63, but they cant tell you what you might see if you visited its site. Middle
Americans missed their chance to buy Data General in 1975 and Microsoft in 1986, so when
they hear theres a whole nother computer revolution going on, they dont
want to buy the software so much as they want to buy the stock of the company that makes
But thats fine with the people out here. Theyll be happy
to take your money.
I RECEIVED AN
e-mail , "Looking for me?" it asked, attaching a phone number. An e-mail I sent
out was forwarded through several rounds of recipients to reach him. My e-mail did not say
I was looking for "the nudist on the late shift." Someone Id encountered
had thought she remembered the nudists name, and I sent out e-mails with every
spelling variation of this name, wondering if anyone knew how to get in touch with him.
So now I had the phone number of some guy. But I didnt know if
he was the nudist. It took me two days to work up the nerve to call. How do you ask
somebody such a question? If he werent the nudist, he would probably be offended and
hang up. If he were the nudist, it was probably a deeply personal matter and he
would either deny it or be offended by my intrusion and hang up. I developed a strategy:
the more apologetic I was up front, the less I might piss him off and the longer I might
keep him on the phone. I dialed the number. Right then I realized that the best strategy
might be not to apologize at all, to act as if it were no big deal---not give any
indication that this might be sensational. I hung up the phone and wrote out a whole new
script of questions in this tone.
Two hours later I called back. I had a lump in my throat, and I was
growing dizzy with trepidation. His voice came on the line: casual, friendly, well-spoken.
He called me by my first name, and we started to chat, in increasing earnest. Then I asked
the dreaded question, and he laughed. "My gosh, its grown to the size of urban
"Is it true?" I asked.
"Its [click] true," he said. The click
was the sound my phone emits for call waiting, which I forgot to turn off. Of all times!
So what had he said? Id heard the word "its" and the word
"true," but they had been separated by a pause or by the word "not?
"Its ...true" or "Its not true!"? The damn click! What if
he hangs up on me now? Ill have come this close and then lost it.
He began to talk about the urban legend and how people misconstrued
the truth; how everyone misinterpreted what had happened. How because of this, his
reputation preceded him wherever he went. I felt deflated. He wanted to know what version
of the urban legend I heard, and I told him what little I heard, as sketchy as it was, and
how Id heard it.
"Typical," he muttered.
"So theres no truth to it, huh?" I asked, my last
"Oh, no," he said. "it is true."
IN THE PROGRAMMER community, eccentricity is de rigueur, and when David Coons and his wife
held skinny-dipping parties, he invited his friends from work. So nobody made much of it
that he took his clothes off at the office after ten P.M. At that hour, there was nobody
left in the building but programmers and animators working on deadline, and these were
open-minded people who couldnt care less. Besides, David was no ordinary programmer;
to get his work done, he invented tools that everyone else could use. He invented one of
the first film-to-digital scanners and an award-winning digital ink and paint system.
David had been working slave hours for two weeks straight. The
company was trying to get a feature film ready for release, and he would come in around
four in the afternoon and stay until 2 or 3 A.M. Working that hard, focused, is like
having blinders on. One night he looked at his clock, which said "20:06," and
his tired brain misfigured. He thought, "Oh, good, its after ten." Still
inside his office, he took his clothes off.
About half an hour later, he went down the hall to the CGI
department to discuss something with his friend Bijon. On the way back, there was a lady
in the film printing room who wasnt supposed to be there that late---all union
workers were reliably gone by ten. That was when David realized he misread his clock by
two hours. She was a union employee, and that was the problem. What was perfectly
acceptable in the programming culture wasnt at all acceptable in the film union
employee manual. David already had one run-in with the union, which enforced its rule that
nonunion workers cant touch celluloid, so he couldnt even use the film scanner
But he still didnt know anything was wrong. He went back to
his office and continued working. A couple of hours later, two security guards knocked on
his door. They didnt know what to do other than to tell him to put his clothes on.
Then his boss called from home and told David hed better go home for the night. For
a while, David refused: "Im working on the project!" He had to get it
He was put on "minihiatus," quarantined at home for a
week. The film union pressured management to have him fired, but everyone whod ever
had their bugs fixed by him---and everyone hed ever met a deadline for---stood up
for him. He laughed through the whole thing.
Regardless, he got the project done on schedule. Thats the
important thing. Eventually the fiasco blew over.
"The whole thing was fun as hell. My little adventure into
corporate squabble. If they didnt want me because Im nude, then I didnt
want to work there. They had no sense of humor. Youve got to inject fun into the
workplace, or else the force of order will win over creativity. The lieutenants who
establish procedures and protocols will eat away at the imagination. Work today has to be
half work, half play. We spend our whole lives at the workplace.
"You understand that, dont you?"
WHEN YOU GET
down to it, the real work of Silicon Valley occurs in the mind---the minds of workers
sitting in their cubicles, staring at screens, pondering their challenges. Thats
where innovation occurs. Thats where the buzz is. Thats where you can go to
take it all in. I keep thinking about this quote from Kafka: You do not need to leave your
room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not
even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be
unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.